Part 4 carries the story to the mid-20th century.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Fresh Air–Part 4 of Catholics in Agincourt and Vicinity
It’s not that we have more weather in this part of the country; nor is ours necessarily more dramatic (though we can certainly see it to better advantage). Perhaps Midwestern weather just seems to have more consequence, more import–some of it over life and death. It was an atmospheric event that had shaped the beginning of Catholicism in Agincourt. Now another storm helped set the next important phase in motion: construction of our third Catholic church, called Christ the King, in 1950.
In 1949 two remarkable American churches were under construction, both from designs by Francis Barry Byrne, Chicago architect connected with the early early practice of Frank Lloyd Wright–though I wonder if Byrne had tired by then of that association being made…again and again and again. He was surely one of the few progressive Catholic architects in those tumultuous years that led to Vatican II; a designer whose works anticipated the fresh air and vitality of post-Vatican II architecture by at least two decades.
Traveling by rail between his two current projects–St Francis Xavier in Kansas City and St Columba in St Paul–Byrne’s train diverted through Agincourt, avoiding a washout on the Des Moines River. The train paused here to refuel and wait out the storm; Byrne decided providentially to spend the night off the train. But the Blenheim Hotel was ful to capacity, so he called at the rectory to see about accommodations. As luck would have it, Rev Farber knew the architect by reputation, asked the housekeeper Mrs Breen to reheat some corned beef and cabbage, and threw open the guest quarters. They talked well past midnight and forged a friendship.
During an Irish pilgrimage just before the war, Fr Emil had seen Byrne’s remarkable Church of Christ the King at Cork, on the southwest coast of Ireland, at one of the ports for channel crossings. I saw it myself about forty years later and understand his admiration. The Cork church is a simple, expansive, column-free interior with light and acoustics for modern worship. The architect’s description of his two new projects in Missouri and Minnesota convinced Farber that an improved St Ahab was within reach. Our new Christ the King was born that night.
He’d never before been in Agincourt but the architect showed instinctive, intuitive understanding of the Founders’ intent: a civic core symbolizing nineteenth century ideals of body, mind and spirit. To Byrne’s enduring credit, the building we see today is identical with the prophetic sketch (on the back of a manila envelope from Wasserman’s Hardware, if you must know), a drawing that still exists in parish files, a fishy form that plays with notions of balance and symmetry.
Great architecture is always collaborative. So, Byrne often worked with sympathetic artists; he did at St Paul and Kansas City (Alfonso Iannelli in both cases) and did for us as well. Those planar concrete forms are enriched with stained glass from St Louis (by Fry & Harmon) and by Stations of the Cross fashioned by our own Karl Wasserman, legendary one-person art department at the college. [More about Karl another time.] Bishop Mueller consecrated Agincourt’s Christ the King in the summer of 1951, though the day clearly belonged to Emile Farber and Barry Byrne.
Byrne and Farber’s church just as clearly belongs on the National Register of Historic Places. Trust me on this. So, if Howard doesn’t follow through (jeez, he’s busy these days), I’m inclined to tackle the nomination myself.